Stepping on the Necks of Low-Wage Workers


North Carolina’s “pioneering” rush to bigotry, as the New York Times and the Washington Post have named it, continues to instruct, and appall, the nation. This is apparently what Gov. McCrory meant by re-branding. We’re no longer just first in flight, or freedom. “First in bigotry,” I’ll concede, does have a certain ring. Mississippi weeps.

As an ancillary offshoot to their suppressive campaigns, the governor and General Assembly have developed a distinctive and defining expertise – the ability to take a non-existing problem, hyperventilate about the phantom, and then craft a solution that wounds and debases the most vulnerable members of society. No doubt it makes for an impressive resume line.

Actually, HB2, the “bathroom bill,” puts the scare tactic on stilts. While McCrory and the legislative leadership dissembled to injure the LGBT community – cynically hoping to energize a base for November – they also, of course, quietly made it illegal for North Carolina cities to raise the minimum wage. So they not only used a non-existent problem to fashion a solution that purposefully inflicts damage; they took a massive, concrete, actual challenge and made it impossible to deploy a significant remedy to address it. The sweet and quick handiwork of anti-problem solvers.

Charlotte, famously, triggered the bullies’ wrath. But the debilitation is broader – barring all municipal governments, statewide, from trying to lift wages by mandate. Still, Charlotte itself provides potent illustration of the challenges faced by low-income, urban Tar Heel workers. Its tremors echo in Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem. A look at Charlotte’s unfolding economic stratification and hardship suggests why non-feudal cities and states across the nation are increasing, sometimes even dramatically, minimum wage standards.

Charlotte is, on an array of fronts, an economic powerhouse. It can boast one of the state’s highest per capita income rates and its greatest accumulations of wealth. It is North Carolina’s biggest city, the nation’s 17th largest. It’s also the third fastest growing metropolis in the country. Mecklenburg County has over 10% of North Carolina’s population and over 15% of its jobs. The Charlotte metropolitan area produces a quarter of the state’s personal income. Its median income is 21% higher than that of the state at large. Twenty-five percent of Mecklenburg County households earn over $100,000 a year, much higher than the figure statewide.

Still, the prosperity is not widely enjoyed. Stanford professor Raj Chetty’s famed mobility studies concluded Charlotte has the worst income mobility in the United States. If you’re born poor in Charlotte, you are more apt to stay that way than anywhere else. Almost 30% of Charlotte full-time workers make less than $23,500 a year. They don’t typically reflect the profile urged in political narratives. They aren’t fresh-faced teenagers looking for work experience before heading off to Yale. The majority are over 30. They are disproportionally female, black, Hispanic and Native American. They work long hours. They often can’t make ends meet.

Over the last decade, the number of Charlotteans living in poverty nearly doubled, the third sharpest increase in the country. The poverty rate for working age African Americans (22%) and Hispanics (25%) is more than double that of whites (9%). Five percent of white kids in Charlotte are impoverished – 36% of black children and 39% of Hispanic kids are. The Brookings Institute reported that, over the last dozen years, Charlotte saw the country’s sixth steepest rise in concentrated poverty. In 2000, one in ten Mecklenburg county residents lived in neighborhoods where over 20% of locals were poor. Now it’s more than one in four. Half of North Carolina’s ten most severely economically distressed census tracts are located in the heart of the Queen City.

Since 2002, middle-income jobs ($45,000-60,000) have been increasingly replaced by strongly stratified employment opportunities. Eighty-four percent of job gains have been either low wage (under $36,000) or high wage (over $82,000). Four of the ten highest categories of newly created positions don’t deliver a living wage. Salaries for low wage categories of employment have typically been either stagnant, or actually declined. Food preparation workers make 7% less than they did ten years ago. Managers make over 30% more. The unfolding polarization is predicted to rise.

Charlotte’s explosion of low wage service jobs, essential to meet the varied needs of notably higher income residents, poses a pointed moral question. Families at the bottom are squeezed by a daunting regime of rising costs and shrinking resources. Pockets of poverty and distress mushroom. A city of commercial prowess thus becomes a potent landscape of economic apartheid. Amidst great and burgeoning wealth, stunning numbers are locked out – denied meaningful prospects to thrive, as they serve others who prosper.

The North Carolina General Assembly has intervened decisively to make sure it stays that way.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law and in 2015 started the Poverty Research Fund at the University of North Carolina School of Law after the UNC Board of Governors closed the state-funded Poverty Center. He is also President Emeritus of College of William & Mary.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2016

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